Compact, quaint and charismatic, Riga’s atmospheric Old Town, elegant parks, eclectic architecture, countless cool coffee shops and electrifying nightlife make it a genuine ‘must see’ in Eastern Europe.
Flavescent and bouncy in spring, sweaty, smoldering and slow in summer, crisp and romantic in autumn, and the beguiling, mysterious setting for a bittersweet fairytale in winter, Riga is a year-round holiday destination. It is a Gallian hotchpotch of architectural styles, and it always manages to pull it off, exuding a confident cool on every corner.
Spending the daytime in the Latvian capital, strolling, perusing, browsing, sipping, cooing, nibbling and admiring is a fun way to experience the city; however, after dark Riga gets a whole lot more hectic, with a raucous nightlife scene that’s deservedly world-famous.
To make your trip to Riga really special, some forward planning is important. Have a look through our Riga recommendations and take note of your favorites in your BUCKiTDREAM planner.
Explore the Charming Cobbled Streets of the Old Town Riga’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and you can easily get lost in its nest of streets and alleys – and a very pleasant lost it is too! Charming little houses, bohemian coffee shops, welcoming bars and restaurants and lots of elegant Latvian people make being lost in the Old Town very enjoyable indeed. There are also some very beautiful squares to enjoy while you are there, not to mention the ornate Riga Cathedral. A guided tour is a good option if you want to make sure you see the hidden gems that only a local will know about.
Sail the City’s Canals A sightseeing tour by canal boat is a lovely way to see Riga. The Old Town is situated in between a dreamy canal and the river Daugava, so sit back and enjoy a relaxing boat ride that will take you all the way around the sights and sounds of the most beautiful part of town.
Strike a Deal in the City’s Vibrant Markets Riga has two great markets that are well worth a visit. The bustling and crowded central market is housed in five former zeppelin hangars and sells all the best local produce. Delicacies such as Latvian rye bread, farm-made organic cheese, and homemade sauerkraut are ‘must tastes’. This is an ideal place to find souvenirs, with some great deals available on the world-renowned local amber. The Latvian Farmer’s Market in the super-bohemian Kalnciema Quarter is on every Saturday selling great organic produce and is an excellent way to see and feel another side of Latvian life.
See Riga From on High In order to appreciate the contrast between Riga’s quaint Old Town, highly regarded Art Nouveau district, wonderfully gray Former Soviet Union tower blocks and handful of modern landmarks, it’s good to get up high. St. Peter’s Church tower in the Old Town and the Skyline bar on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel offer panoramic views of the entire city. Don your oxygen masks folks, onwards and upwards!
Visit Sigulda, a Castle town in the Vidzeme Region of Latvia It is 53 kilometers from the capital city, Riga.
Explore the Other Side of the Tracks in the Slightly Shabby but Fascinating Moscow District The local hostels will advise against going to this area at night due to its higher crime rate and accompanying shady reputation, and I’m going to assume they are correct about this, but during the day this area is certainly worth checking out. Situated on the right bank of the Daugava river, across from the Old Town and off the tourist track, Maskavas Forštate (or the Moscow District) is a strikingly different experience from the most salubrious areas of Riga. It is a little run-down but we found it to be friendly and the really cool thing is that it feels like going back in time to Soviet-era Russia. It has some dusty little bars and cafes and some enchanting churches, cemeteries and traditional wooden-fronted houses that are well worth a visit.
Imbibe Some High-Culture at the Latvian National Opera This beautiful, ornate old opera house hosts some of the great performers from around the world. It is a wonderful place to hear a concert as the acoustics are excellent and the atmosphere is undoubtedly grand. Ahh, if these walls could talk… (even better – they sing!).
See the World-Famous Art Nouveau District Riga is famous for its Art Nouveau architecture, boasting some of the world’s most gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings.
Get some Tan Lines at Jurmala beach (highly weather-dependent!) Riga has a beautiful beach nearby, even if its weather doesn’t seem to realize it, or doesn’t care! When the sun is out, which, to be fair, often is during the summer, Jurmala gets busy. Its wide sandy beaches and waterfront bars and restaurants get very lively. It’s Riga’s Coney Island!
Stroll Around the Delightful Vermanes Park This elegant park in central Riga is the perfect place for a stroll at any time of year. The manicured lawns, rolling hills, and meandering river makes it a bastion of relaxing nature in the heart of the city. Check out Apsara Tea House in the center of the park and enjoy its selection of delicious teas and super-chilled, ‘lying on cushions on the floor’ vibe.
Riga has lots of luxurious high-end hotels and a wealth of funky and friendly hostels. Here’s our recommendation for three of the best:
High-end Neiburgs Hotel is situated in a listed Art Nouveau building in central Riga and offers luxury, comfort, and elegance. Nice spa on-site and a decent restaurant.
Medium Radisson Blu Elizabete Hotel is a reliable high-quality chain hotel in central Riga; it’s unpretentious and a sensible choice for those wanting comfort without shelling out too much cash.
Budget The Naughty Squirrel Backpackers Hostel is smack-bang in the middle of the Old Town. Very comfortable, very clean, very friendly, this is an ideal base for exploring by day and partying by night. The bar and common area are hives of activity and great places to meet new friends.
Latvian cuisine is big, tasty and hearty, with a focus on delicious locally-grown potatoes, cabbage, onions and other vegetables often accompany pork, beef, and chicken to make belly-filling plates of food; the stews and casseroles are fantastic too. Traditional restaurants serving very reasonably priced Latvian food are located all over the city center.
For some gourmet haute cuisine, make your way to the celebrated and celeb-frequented Vincents Restorans, which serves spectacular, inventive dishes based on whichever local produce is currently in season. If you get a hankering for something a bit different, there are also lots of foreign restaurants throughout the city.
Drinks and Nightlife
Riga is generously sprinkled with cozy, eccentrically decorated independent coffee shops and tea rooms. The Old Town is full of ‘venus-flytrap’ coffee shops like Rigensis that are so snug and welcoming and serve such delectable coffee and cakes that you may become trapped there, hopelessly unable to stop reading and relaxing. Beware!
Riga’s nightlife scene is wild and buzzing, especially in the Old Town. Kalku Street has lots and lots of bars and clubs that are great fun and open late. It has a reputation for attracting loud and rowdy stag party groups, but we found most bars and clubs to be friendly, convivial and generously populated with locals.
Kanepes cultural center is a cafe, club, venue, social center and art workshop all rolled into one. If you want to meet artistically-minded Latvian young people and enjoy some contemporary local art and music then this is the place to go.
Latvia produces quite a few eminently quaffable beers; Cēsu is from the oldest brewery in the country and we enjoyed more than a glass of it during our stay.
For a taste of local flavor, Riga Black Balsam is a vodka-based herbal liqueur that will warm the cockles your heart all the way through the night.
Tips and Culture
Riga International Airport is the largest airport in the Baltic States and operates cheap flights to all major European cities, as well as America, Asia, and Africa.
Transport around Riga is quick and easy. Trams, buses, and trolleybuses operate a reliable service all across the city.
The official language of Latvia is Latvian although English is also widely spoken.
Riga has the largest number of free WiFi spots per square kilometer in Europe, so no problems there.
A Bobsleigh Tour is pretty much the most fun you can have with your clothes on. A 160kph bobsleigh ride will leave you with spine-tingling memories and hair-raising flashbacks (in a good way) for the rest of your life. It isn’t every day that you get to actually live out your Cool Runnings fantasies…just do it!
Riga is a beautiful city and well and truly a holiday destination worthy of any bucket list. So while you browse the farmer’s market and sample the delicious wares in Kalnciema or bust out some dance moves in one of the Old Town’s many wild nightclubs, why not inspire your friends by sharing you dream Riga experiences on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram?